1. Perform the "Shin Box" Before Lifting
Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in front of a computer all day, and as a result we end up with the movement quality of a sloth and our hips require a crowbar to unglue them. Perform this simple "flow-type" drill prior to your next deadlift session. It covers many bases, including working both hip internal/external rotation, improving hip flexor length, and glute activation.
Shin Box Drill
If you struggle with the drill, you can make it easier by supporting your weight with your hands behind you throughout the set. As you gain more proficiency, however, the goal would be to do this drill without your hands.
2. Take Your Shoes Off
Deadlifting barefoot or in socks alleviates an anterior weight shift, helps to shift your weight back, and better engages the posterior chain (glutes/hamstrings). More importantly, it gets you closer to the floor, which equates to a shorter distance to lockout. If you train at a gym that doesn't allow you to take your shoes off, it's lame and you should consider finding a new gym. Shy of that, look into purchasing a flatter shoe like Chuck Taylors.
3. Focus on an Active Foot
When doing deadlifts barefoot, it's a good idea to adopt the concept of active foot vs. passive foot. It was initially devised for squats, but it carries over very well to the deadlift, too.
Active vs. Passive Foot
A common mistake people make with their initial setup is losing the arch in their foot so that it flattens out and collapses, resulting in a disadvantageous position. The easy fix is telling someone to wear orthotics (and, true, some people require them). However, orthotics are often a lazy fix that doesn't address the actual problem.
Adopt an active foot instead. You'll learn to get even weight distribution amongst three contact points of the foot – underneath the big toe and little toe, as well as the heel. Additionally, you'll "layer" the three points of contact with another popular cue, which is to corkscrew your feet into the ground as if trying to rip the floor apart. This helps to improve external rotation torque in the hips, drastically improving hip/low back stability.
4. Make a Heel Print in the Floor
The deadlift is just as much a pushing exercise as it is a pulling exercise. You need to think about pushing the barbell away from the floor by putting as much force into the ground as possible. A common cue is "try to make a heel print in the floor," and it works like magic. Not, like, you know, Gandalf defeating the Eye of Saruman magic, but more so like, "Holy shit, I just lifted 20 more pounds than usual" magic. This will be a little trickier for those who pull sumo style compared to those who pull conventional, but it's still a good idea for both.
5. Assume the Power Position
A common mistake many conventional or trap bar deadlifters make is setting up with their feet too wide. This has a couple of deleterious effects. If the feet are too wide, then the knees have nowhere to go but in. This isn't a good position to deadlift from. If the knees are in valgus, then active foot can't be attained.
Setting up too wide also has a cascade effect on hand positioning (too wide) and back positioning (too rounded). To fix this, imagine jumping as high as you can. Where would your feet start from? That's the power position.
Feet Too Wide
Ideal Power Position
6. Learn to Use a Weight Belt Correctly
There's no denying the improved performance when we add a weight belt into the mix. Doing so allows for greater intra-abdominal pressure and stability. Use one once you approach the 90% of 1RM threshold.
How to Use a Lifting Belt
If you watch how most people use the belt, you'll often see an overemphasis on pushing the belly into the belt. This can be problematic in that it causes an exaggerated arch in the lumbar spine which can compromise stability. The better approach is to incorporate 3D, or 360 degrees of expansion, where you push air all the way around to the front, side, and back of the belt.
7. Choose the Right Variation For You
The deadlift can easily be modified to fit the needs, experience level, and body-type of anyone. Some people ask, is it cheating to use the trap bar deadlift? Is it cheating? If you're not a competitive powerlifter, who gives a shit?
Not everyone can – or should – conventional deadlift. Some lifters may lack the appropriate ankle dorsiflexion, hip mobility, and thoracic extension to get into proper position and perform it safely. Furthermore, when introducing the deadlift to someone, it's a good idea to begin with the trap bar as it lends itself to being a bit more user friendly.
In general, though, we'd be remiss not to take into consideration each individual's unique anthropometry. Those with longer torsos or short alligator arms may struggle mightily with conventional pulling. Why not implement a variation that sets them up for the most success (puts them into a good position and allows them to lift the most weight), like a trap bar or sumo deadlift?
8. Try a Modified Narrow-Sumo Stance
It happens all the time. When someone adopts the modified narrow-sumo stance, he or she instantly improves their back/torso position, not to mention weight used.
The Modified Sumo Stance Deadlift
It's just a fact of life that a wide sumo stance will tend to eat up your hips after a certain point. Moreover, conventional pulling may not be an ideal fit due to mobility restrictions. Why not meet somewhere in the middle of the two?
9. Make the Barbell Click
Getting and maintaining tension is crucial for a big deadlift. This is accomplished via upper back and lat tension. Use the barbell as a counterbalance to get the chest up and weight back (armpits above the bar), and then "make the barbell click."
10. Get Slack Out of the Bar
This tip piggybacks on the above point. Put another way, bend the bar before you pull it.
11. Fire Your Lats!
Getting the lats to fire is a game changer for a big deadlift. The latissimus dorsi is the body's largest back muscle with attachments at the humerus, scapulae, rib cage, and pelvis. It provides a ton of stability to the spine during heavy loading. Use these two cues to further engage your lats:
- Protect your armpits.
- Squeeze an orange in your armpit.
Both work well, but sometimes it's advantageous to go a step further in order to help someone feel what it's like to fire the lats.
Learning Lat Tension with the Deadlift
Simply add a resistance band to a barbell and do your deadlift while keeping the barbell close to the body at all times. You'll get it immediately.
12. Use a Mixed Grip Wisely
There's a lot of confusion about whether or not using a mixed grip (one hand pronated, one hand supinated) for a deadlift is safe. It is. Here are some additional thoughts:
- Use a double pronated (overhand) grip for as long as you can. This may mean all warm-up or build-up sets are performed with this grip.
- Once grip becomes a limiting factor, switch to a mixed grip, then alternate with each subsequent set.
- Something to consider is the ability to supinate your lower arm. If you lack supination on any given side, the common compensation will be increased elbow flexion (which makes it harder to get to the bar), which then may result in jerking the barbell off the floor and a torn biceps.
- If you lack supination on one side or the other, it would be wise to seek out some manual therapy for the forearms. And be sure to stick with overhand grip on the side that lacks supination if or when you switch to a mixed grip.
Lack of supination
13. Get Your Hips Close to the Bar
It's common for many lifters to misinterpret "get the hips closer to the bar" by taking a more vertical approach and squatting down towards the bar. As coach Greg Robins notes:
"If we were to close the vertical distance from the hips to the bar, this would increase the lateral distance. If we close the distance from the hips to the bar laterally, this will increase the vertical distance. When we close vertically, the lateral distance is nowhere near as great as when we close laterally."
In short, for optimal leverages per body type, we want to keep the hips as close to the bar as laterally possible. This will often entail a little maneuvering of the hips in order to feel more tension in the hamstrings.
More lateral distance
Less lateral distance